By Andrew Shamrao
I’ve seen a few posts on Linkedin asking people to stop posting political messages.
One writer seemed to argue that politics doesn’t have anything to do with business, and therefore, does not belong in a professional networking forum, where business-related topics should be discussed. Another writer argued that expressing political opinions may hurt one’s career. He also argued that one test for determining if you should post your opinion is to ask yourself whether you really have something unique to say. Both of these posts received many likes and a mixed bag of comments, some supportive of the author’s opinion, others against.
I find both of these points of view to favor discouraging free speech. The view that one should only express oneself if you have something new or unique to say is the kind of thinking that stifles innovation. Many would-be inventors don’t invent because they’ve been taught to think that someone has probably thought of their idea already. In the same way many people don’t express their views because they think someone has already expressed what they’re thinking. Who knows, perhaps one person’s unique expression of an idea that has been expressed by others will be better understood by some readers or listeners! This should be reasons enough to encourage expression of all points of view.
As I was reading through some of the responses to the posts mentioned above, I began to wonder why in a country where free speech is valued, some would discourage it. A moment later, I read a response to one of these posts that made it clear what people probably dislike most about online political exchanges. The response was loud, not well thought through, insulting and had the quality of a rant. The nature of the response made me want to close the forum and do something else. Perhaps your reaction would have been similar.
In a recent post on LinkedIn, the founder of Writerbeat.com published her response to a writer who objected to forum participants who freely hurl insults in response to a post, without concern for whether they are addressing the point the writer is trying to make. The founder’s response to the writer’s objections was to defend the individual who responded abusively, indicating that his responses garner an audience and that such responses are to be expected in a medium that allows one to express one’s opinions anonymously. Her response disappointed and bothered me.
I’m a strong proponent of free speech, however, like many readers, I dislike uncivil dialogue. I believe civil exchanges about any topic can be very enriching to writers, readers, speakers and listeners alike. Civil exchanges need not be devoid of passion. A point of view can be expressed passionately without using abusive and demeaning language.
While I dislike hearing abusive and demeaning language, I recognize that it’s not possible to stop someone from expressing themselves that way. But I also know that the power in any exchange lies with the reader or listener, not the writer or speaker. The reader or listener can choose not to respond to abusive rants.
We’ve probably all experienced people we don’t like to have conversations with. We either try to avoid them, or don’t say much in response to their attempts to start a conversation. The same actions are effective online, and in some ways easier to apply, because you can choose not to respond without feeling the discomfort you might feel if you were in front of the speaker and chose not to respond.
This simple idea that listeners and readers wield the power in their relationship with speakers and writers, respectively, is extremely powerful, because if applied effectively, it can extinguish the behavior of speaking or writing. If, for example, a community of readers decides to ignore uncivil behavior in a forum, the experience of being ignored has the effect of eventually extinguishing the verbally abusive behavior in a forum member. If no one is seemingly listening or reading the rants, why continue? So it stops.
On the flip side, if someone who was using abusive language before happens to make a thoughtful response to a post, readers should reinforce that with acknowledgment and a thoughtful response in return. This will result in better exchanges in the future, thereby, creating an environment for civil dialogue. The community can shape the writing behavior of its members by choosing how to respond.
There was a time in my life when I was very argumentative in classes, anticipating what others would say and interrupting them to make my point. My classmates began ignoring me when I tried to make a point. Someone gave me the advice to be silent when another person is speaking, and pause for 3 seconds after they had finished talking, before responding to them. When I practiced this, I discovered that the other person actually said something different than I had anticipated…and it was enlightening at times!
We live in an amazing country where free speech is enshrined in our constitution. The responsibility of speakers and writers is to value that freedom of speech by giving others the right to their views without threat of being insulted.
I encourage civil exchanges on whatever topic individuals find relevant. We do not experience life in a compartmentalized way in which there are hard walls that divide professional life from personal life, and business from politics and religion. In every conversation, there is a possibility that one can and will learn something new. Let’s all dare to converse and learn from each other…especially as we have an opportunity to influence each other in this election season.
The Constitution of the United States affords every one the right to free speech. Let’s support our Constitution and encourage free expression, but use the power we have as listeners and readers to shape civility in writers and speakers.
Copyright 2016 by Andrew Shamrao, All Rights Reserved